Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Screamtime (1984): How low budget can tickle

Screamtime (1984)
dir: Michael Armstrong, Stanley A. Long

The straight to video market in the 80s was infamous for having a whole slew of no budget horror movies that were done by amateurs meant to fill up the video shelves. Growing up in the 1980s, you come to know that you might have to dig deep into the wells for the gems that would periodically perk up. These videos disappeared to the annals of time for a good long period of time, until Netflix, criticized for having no selection, picked up a whole bunch of these no budget British films for their streaming service.

The original VHS cover was surprisingly not inaccurate for the movie within the box. This is an anthology movie about Punch and Judy, a mass murderer, and garden gnomes and buried zombie ghosts. Sure, they're all in different stories, but at least they're all in the movie.

While this is a British film, the framing device is in New York City, where two jerks steal three videos from the local store, and then go over to a girl's apartment, eat her food, make her miss her date, and they watch three British horror movies of negligible quality back to back. They are total jerks. I'm really surprised that the girl invites one of them to sleep with her in between the second and third movie.

The first movie they watch is about an old puppeteer who is doing his passion by doing Punch & Judy shows at the waterfront. He lives in a nice house with his wife in England. They have a son who has finished school (high school or college, it doesn't say). They know a couple of people who are successful in Canada. But, his wife hates the puppets and demands that he gives everything up and goes with her to live in Canada with her son. You know, after she rabidly insults him and calls him a loser for following his passion. The son is also bitter and a punk who berates him at the dinner table. When the son burns down the Punch & Judy stand, all hell breaks loose.

The second movie is about a newlywed couple who move into a house given to them by their father who apparently deals in real estate. The wife starts having increasingly crazy visions beginning with a boy on a bicycle in the yard, moving to happy guys bounding around with knives (blink and you'll miss it), and then to the actual recreation of a multiple murder scenario, driving her to insanity, because one doesn't hallucinate murder scenarios without going a wee bit crazy,

The third film regards a kid who wants to buy a car, so gets a second job as a gardener at a old posh house with two old ladies who love telling stories about their garden. They say there are fairies in it, and they take the manifestation of the garden gnomes who protected their previous owner. The previous owner was a woman who loved having affairs with young men, who would then die and their souls would be slaves of the gnomes.

While the movie is most definitely what it is: a no-budget not-that-shocking horror movie which would have a PG rating except for a single shot of gratuitous nudity as the girl in the framing device steps out of the shower. You know, kind of what you expect from straight-to-VHS 80s horror. There's some horrendously unbelievable violence, and my favorite part is that a the gardener kid gets crucifies like Jesus when he dies.

This movie is hilarious at times. The mother of the newlywed tells her daughter-in-law, "I don't even know why I had a son. Take my advice, and stick with girls." The high pitched Punch sounds during the murders of the first movie are hysterical. And, the two old biddies in the final story really make the movie. I'm not even kidding.

Thusly, Screamtime is actually better than its humble origins as a straight-to-video VHS but not by much. There are aspects that make this a cheesetastic success, and it has elements in the camp style. It almost feels like you're not laughing at it, but laughing with it. It knows it can't elevate itself past the no budget, so it spends its time winking at you. Dream House gets in a bit of tension despite its trappings, but the other two are loaded with cheeky jokes and insane storylines.

Which raises the question: when is a bad movie bad enough to be good? If a movie winks at you throughout, is it good enough to be entertaining? These are the types of questions one must ask for themselves. It is a different formula for everybody that tickles you. I am tickled by an old man chasing a girl with a big orange square of wood while shrieking "Beat the Wife!" in a high pitched squeak that is past a falsetto. I'm tickled by two old ladies gleefully talking about souls that become enslaved to the garden gnomes. I'm tickled by a guy eating fried chicken and sitting 3 ft from the tv screen commenting "It's British. I can tell by the way they talk."

Other people, however, may be bored and with good reason. The pacing in the first story is way off, and if you're not into a bit of humor, the third story will be irritating. Still, this one is worth a watch if you're bored and have nothing better to do, are sick and need something easy on the mind, or something. It's not really ultraviolent, though each of the three have slasher elements to it. It's somewhat sexist, but not overly done. I enjoyed myself, but it's not good. And, it's better than just middling. So, if you don't mind being tickled by low budget horror that makes you laugh more than scream and isn't designed for the gore or breast hounds, this is a good choice.

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